Book: Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

Excellent as long as you're not in a hurry

Julian Barnes
Arthur and George: A Novel
Vintage International, 2005
ISBN: 978-1-4000-9703-6
445 pages

Arthur and George is a historical novel. Arthur turns out to be Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Conan Doyle, famous these days chiefly as the creator of Sherlock Holmes but famous during his lifetime for many other books as well.

George is also a historical figure, though one rather less well known. He's George Edalji (pronounced "Aydlji" as he has occasion to say more than a few times in the novel). George was the son of a vicar in the British Midlands. His father was born in India and his mother was born in Scotland. George did well in school and became a solicitor in Birmingham. George and Arthur's paths crossed in 1906 (when George was 30 and Arthur 47) and Arthur had occasion to do some real-life detective work.

The book does an excellent job on atmosphere. That's partly a result of Mr Barnes's patient accumulation of details in the narrative. Indeed, the novel proceeds at a pace more common for novels of the time it's set in than of recent novels.

The narrator follows George and Arthur by turns, in sections headed with the character's name. The first "George" section begins, "George does not have a first memory, and by the time anyone suggests that it might be normal to have one, it is too late" (p. 4). The book begins with both characters as very young boys and ends with Sir Arthur's sort-of funeral. Indeed, Arthur's and George's paths don't cross until around the middle of the book. If you have the patience for a book that deals with such a broad scope in a comprehensive and unhurried way, your patience will be rewarded: the characters are finely-drawn and their story is an interesting one.

As of this writing, Mr Barnes's Wikipedia article emphasizes the postmodern and French influences in his work. I don't detect those influences to any significant degree in this book. Unless you count the fact that the narrative often addresses issues of perception, but plenty of books do that.

Indeed, Mr Barnes rather hits the reader over the head with issues of perception near the end of the book, which slightly spoils the effect in my opinion, but that's a small thing.

Posted: Mon - September 3, 2007 at 07:35 PM   Main   Category: